6 September – 13 October 2001
British artist Clare Richardson’s series of photographs, entitled ‘Harlemville’, were taken in and around a rural community in North America. Here, the children are educated according to the principles of the Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolph Steiner. Richardson spent several months over the period of a year taking photographs of people in Harlemville, who adhere of a philosophy of how to live that emphasises a back-to-nature simplicity, and the encouragement of free expression, creativity and play. Steiner’s philosophy focused on the need to mobilise the ‘imaginative world’ as the basis of a child’s educational development, advocating the use of fantastical imagery, particularly during the ‘fairytale’ years, between the ages of three to ten, when children play in the most absorbed and uninhibited manner. In Harlemville children are, first and foremost, taught to be aware of nature, and are sequestered from the influence of the media and other elements of wider society. Richardson’s images document pre-teen boys and girls involved in various everyday activities and outdoor play. Her images evoke a nostalgic sense of innocence, depicting what could be imagined scenes from a rites-of-passage novel or film, such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me.
With their quiet, formal clarity and openness of vision, Richardson’s photographs are characterised by an acute sensitivity towards their subject matter, coupled with impeccable photographic technique—they possess a quiet monumentality. But like Diane Arbus or Walker Evans, who also chose sub-cultural groups as their subject, the artist‘s attitude towards the people she documents remains ambivalent. The innocence and purity that these children evoke seems necessarily fleeting in our post-lapsarian society, and their lack of cynicism and worldly experience is poignant, since it seems bound to be lost. Harlemville appears idyllic in its radical optimism, an appealing ‘other’ that makes us question our relationship to ‘innocence’, and the way that it has become a commodity in the mass media, advertising and fashion.